It’s already one month into the school year and parents everywhere are starting to fall into a better rhythm of sleep schedules, drop-offs, pick-ups, and after-school activities. But for too many parents, they are still recovering from the extra expenses that the start of each school year brings. From a long list of supplies to costly uniforms, families with children in elementary through high school can spend up to $868 getting their kids everything they need. That’s almost a $200 difference compared to average spending for back-to-school in 2019.
Those numbers aren’t a surprise to me, as I recall how tough it was to try and cover the expenses of childcare or school expenses for young children. Years ago, I moved back to New York from Florida when my youngest was only three months old. After I separated from my kids’ dad, my two small children and I moved in with my expecting sister and her husband and their kids. Besides having to accommodate the children and me, my mom had also moved in. We were all crammed in their two-bedroom apartment.
Within a few months, I found a full-time job and moved out of my sister’s apartment. My mom moved in with me and took care of the kids. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom and two kids. It was the first apartment for which I paid rent.
The kids were still infants when I got to the new place. I tried looking for affordable daycare centers in the area but mom insisted the kids stay home with her. That may have been for the best because I now realize my childcare options would have been limited, or perhaps nonexistent.
Evelyn Estrada is a second-grade teacher at a Bronx Catholic school and previously worked at a daycare center (also in the Bronx) as an early childhood teacher for almost 20 years. She says that ‘most preschools’ or daycares’ enrollment is determined by a lottery. “Priority is usually given to low-income families,” she added.
My income was barely enough to meet basic needs, but I wasn’t considered low-income, so I was ineligible for childcare assistance programs. The kids spent their first years with my mom.
I thought about enrolling the kids in Catholic school once they were of age. At the time, there was one nearby to where I lived that was still accepting applications – but when I investigated further, the tuition wasn’t something I could afford. Fortunately, I found a great public school that came highly recommended and that the kids grew to love. The teachers were welcoming and very passionate. While the instruction of the public school teachers was appreciated and free, there were a few things that weren’t included.
The kindergarten teacher provided a list of supplies students would need to start the school year. Among the items on the list were pencils, pencil cases, erasers, notebooks, folders, tissue paper, and paper towels. But each year the list grew longer, leaving me no other option but to apply for credit while stretching out my thin budget that included costs for food and shelter.
Every year I got the back-to-school blues. I found myself saving money just to have enough for school supplies. I was often spending close to $500 for each child – and that didn’t include the cost of uniforms, which at one point were required in some elementary schools throughout the public school system in New York City. Then you have to add the cost of computers and research tools for students in higher grades, especially during Covid when most libraries were closed because of the pandemic.
My kids are grown now, but many low-income families are still struggling. Mrs. Estrada said that since teaching at a private Catholic school, the budget for spending on school supplies has been an issue and that cost can get passed on to parents.
In August, with funding from the American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in Congress and President Biden, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced a one-time payment of $214 for each child between the ages of three and 17; $150 for children younger than three years old. But this one-time payment was only for people on public assistance with an income level of $28,548 for a family of three. Eligibility for public assistance is determined by a budget that only includes spending on energy and rent, not many of the other bills that can push a family over the edge. And when the federal funds run out, this money for families will dry up.
“Sometimes we don’t have enough in our budget, for things like school trips. When we run out of masks and hand sanitizer, it comes out of pocket,” said Mrs. Estrada. “We also have bake sales and book sales to compensate,” she added.
It’s clear we need more permanent solutions for families who are struggling or aren’t considered low-income and cannot afford back-to-school expenses or other basic needs. Parents still incur costs throughout the school year. They need no strings-attached funds they can use for school-related expenses, essential expenses, or anything else they deem important for their family. This would be possible by making programs such as the expanded Child Tax Credit and universal basic income permanent.
A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau clearly illustrates the dramatic and significant impact that these types of programs can have on children and families. The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is a formula that measures poverty once safety net programs like SNAP and income-based tax credits are factored in, and it shows the difference this support can make to struggling families.
The SPM in 2021 was 7.8 percent, which was 1.4 percentage points lower than in 2020. Looking at the numbers specifically for children, the SPM rate for children fell by 4.5 percentage points to its lowest level on record (5.2 percent). This reinforces the reports we’ve already seen about the impact the expanded Child Tax Credit had on reducing child poverty.
Data has shown that families spent most of the money they received from this tax credit on necessities like food, utilities – and school supplies. We’ve seen similar results from communities that have implemented pilot programs for universal basic income, where participants have experienced more financial stability and improved mental and physical well-being. A federal universal basic income program would make a huge difference for many families, allowing them some financial breathing room and paying for things like school supplies without anxiety – or the need to take out a loan.
Anyone with kids knows the stress of getting them to school on time, without a fight, with everything they need – and then getting to work on time. There’s no reason parents should have the added stress of empty pockets when they work so hard. Our government has the funds we need to let millions of parents breathe easier.